Pan American Highway
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Driving The Pan American Highway from Alaska to Argentina is probably the most popular Overland route in the world, and as such, is very, very achievable for the average person. No paperwork is required in advance and many countries are relatively cheap to travel through. People from almost all countries in the world can gain entry to each country for free for 90 days.
Since late 2014 a vehicle ferry has been operating from Panama to Colombia across the Darien Gap, making it much easier to complete the drive. (This has since been cancelled again.)
| A guide for overlanding in Mexico and Central America. This book provides detailed information by country. It also includes 11 chapters of information for planning and preparing your trip and 9 chapters on what to expect while driving through Mexico and Central America.
Completed by the authors of Life Remotely.
Travels from Chile to Alaska over 5 years. Budget travel and many places visited. Very little information on camping or surfing spots.
High budget trip by a group of film makers. High on drama, although lacking some information which an potential overlander would want.
Same as above, for South America.
- The Travelling Together Journal (Trip still in progress - 2018)
A couple travels the length of the pan American highway from the USA to Panama. Lots of information about travelling on the road, and places to stop.
The straight-line, minimum deviation distance from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina is 30,000kms (18,000 miles).
Due to the extreme winters, it's advisable to avoid winter at the extreme North and South ends of the journey. That naturally means the journey is often completed in approximately one and a half years.
People that love riding their motorbike every single day will complete the trip in six months.
Obviously, you can go as fast or slow as you please and some Overlanders have taken many years to complete the trip.
This will depend on many variable factors such as the time you take for the trip and how often you camp and cook your own food. Many of the countries in Central and South America are relatively cheap, so expenses need not be high. Crossing the Darien Gap is the only expensive logistical challenge.
Some information from other Overlanders:
- John from John and Mandi posted a Pan-American Budgeting page to help others build their own trip budget. The blog post is available at Pan-Am Planning - Budgeting | John and Mandi
- Nomadic Year posted an extremely detail breakdown of costs on April 2016 Expense Report - Central and South America
- Brad from Drive Nacho Drive has posted his budget for driving around the entire world, which includes the Pan American Highway. The blog post is The Cost of Driving Around The World.
- Dan from The Road Chose Me completed the journey solo in a 4x4 in 22 months from mid 2009 - mid 2011 for $27,300.00 USD.
- Jessica, Jared & Kobus from Life Remotely completed the journey between Oct 2011-May 2013 for a total of $88,000.00 USD Budget breakdowns per country | Life Remotely
You do not need a Carnet de Passage for any country in North, Central or South America. Some websites say you do, that is outdated information.
There are two logistical challenges to driving the Pan American Highway:
- Crossing the Darien Gap from Panama to Colombia requires shipping the vehicle on a boat. This can be accomplished several ways (motorcycles may be able to sail or fly) including roll on-roll off, container and flat deck shipping.
- People driving Right Hand Drive (RHD) vehicles will have to apply for a permit to drive through El Salvador. Alternatively, they can choose to bypass El Salvador entirely. See the El Salvador page for more details. Also it's technically illegal to enter Nicaragua with a RHD vehicle, though it seems many overlanders have paid a small bribe to get around this. As recently as 2014 some overlanders have been denied entry to Chile with RHD vehicles, specifically at southern land border crossings and when shipping into Chile.
Arrive at borders early in the morning to avoid long line-ups.
Most borders are closed overnight, and it's not advisable to wait at the border when darkness falls due to safety concerns.
Most countries require that you have the required 3rd party insurance, which is usually called SOAT (does not cover your own vehicle). There are some companies which offer SOAT which also covers nearby countries. Up to date information and pricing would be required to determine whether this would be a cost saving. There is international insurance available, although can be cost prohibitive, and its effectiveness has not been documented. This may not fulfil a countries SOAT requirements and could lead to issued with borders and police.
Safety in No Man's Land
Often when crossing borders you will be officially stamped out of one country, pass through a populated area that seemingly has no jurisdiction, then enter the second country. These "No Man's land" areas are not a good place to spend time, it's advised you move through them directly to the next official station.
You are certain to encounter locals offering to help you with paperwork to get across borders in Central America. They will usually have Identification (home made) and can be quite pushy, demanding and rude. Depending on the border and time of day, you may be surrounded by ten or more people yelling and trying to take your paperwork. These "helpers" will insist the process is so difficult you can not cross the border without their help, which is completely untrue.
Their help is really not needed, and so do not give them your documents. They will ask for outrageous amounts of money to give it back, after helping you very little. Often they will pretend to be officials to get you to hand over your documents. Only give your documents and seek advice from people inside official offices, or a uniformed Police officer with a badge.
Fire stations around the world are known to help out cyclists, motorbikers and sometimes 4 wheel based Overlanders. It never hurts to ask if you can park or camp in a fire station throughout Latin America, almost always they will be receptive and you'll have secure parking and make some great friends. It doesn't hurt to buy them coffee or a beer, or to donate to a local charity to say thanks.
Crossing The Darién Gap
The Darién Gap is a 160km strip of swampland that separates Panama from Colombia. You can read all about it at the wikipedia page Darién Gap. Only a handful of extremely well outfitted 4x4 expeditions have managed to drive through the gap. It's extreme 4x4ing and not without serious risks.
99.9999% of all people crossing the Darién Gap ship their vehicle in one way or another.
THERE IS NO FERRY EXPRESS (Sept 2018)
If crossing with a pet, see the information on the Panama page. Several good write-ups available to assist. Options include sailing through the islands with the pet or shipping the pet with an airline cargo service. Specific paperwork is required.
People on motorbikes can take advantage of the numerous small yachts making the crossing. Motorbikes are man-handled on and off at each end and ride on the deck of the boats covered in tarps. Almost all boats allow the rider to come along for the amazing trip through the San Blas Islands and some even take care of the customs paperwork at each end.
Costs are around $700.00 USD for bike and rider in 2010.
Hostal Wunderbar have a lot of experience organizing this trip for riders and come very highly recommended.
Shipping a Motorcycle by Air from Panama to Colombia is an excellent writeup from 2013. Total cost for bike and rider was $1,322.00 USD Motorcycles may also be able to load the bikes on a cargo plane and fly them to South America.
Shipping a vehicle
There is a new app to find partners to ship with and save money- find it at https://containerbuddies.org/
By far and away the most popular option to cross the gap is to load your vehicle into a shipping container and use ocean freight to move it from Colón in Panama to Cartegena in Colombia, or the opposite direction. Note that people will have to make the crossing separately (usually flying or sailing).
Start by reading the Vehicle Shipping page to learn everything you need to know.
NOTE: Because this is such a popular crossing with Overlanders it's very likely you'll meet someone else heading in the same direction to share a large 40 foot container with. Not only will this work out cheaper, you'll have another Overland team to help work through the paperwork. Some people fit motorbikes in too.
- A great write-up of using RO-RO for a large vehicle in August 2014 is here Roll on roll off shipping from Panama to Colombia includes detailed description and price.
- The most recent price report is Shipping From Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia - Pawsontour Detailed shipping document and price from January 2014 including all fees $1,050.50 USD per vehicle sharing a 40 ft. container.
- Another price report is Shipping From Colombia To Panama Shipping details and price from September 2013 $1,175.50 USD per vehicle sharing a 40 ft. container.
Common shipping agents
A Few shipping agents have become popular over the years for Overlanders.
- Seabord Marine Panama
Deal with tourists on a very regular basis and usually quote an "everything, no hassle" quote of around $1,000.00 USD to $1,200.00 USD per vehicle.
Ave. Miguel Brostella
Edif. PH Camino de Cruces, Local M2, Mezzanine
Tel.: (507) 360-5900 Fax: (507) 360-5940
Apdo. 0816 - 00665 Panamá 5, R. de P.
Tel= (507) 273-7488, (507) 273-8368, Fax: (507) 273-0727
Contact = Javier Sucre (Spanish & English), Vanessa Degracia
Tel = (507) 360-5914 / Fax = (507) 360-5910
GPS = 9.006061° -79.538382°
Web = Seaboard Marine
Email = email@example.com
- Barwil Agencia S.A.
Barwil are also extremely used to dealing with Overlanders and also offer a "no hassle" quote of around $1,000.00 USD to $1,200.00 USD per vehicle.
Panama Pacifico (former Howard Airforce Base), south of the city
International Business Park,
Tower A, 3rd floor, Office 401
N08º 55.67’ W79º 35.57’
Phone: +507 263 7755; Fax: +507 223 0698
Panama, Republic of Panama
Web: Wilhelmsen Ships Service
Many Overlanders have completed the task of shipping across The Darien Gap. Rather than duplicate the information here, the goal is to link to the most up to date sources possible. Please add links if you know a site that details the process.
- Shipping from Colombia to Panama with RoRo in August 2015 - https://www.facebook.com/paraypregunta/posts/1654422634773281
- Documentation of shipping early 2014 for $1,050.00 USD per car in a 40 ft. container http://www.pawsontour.com/iea/DOWNLOADS/Grenzuebergang/Verschiffung_Auto_Panama_Kolumbien.zip
- Detailed shipping description from Pawsontour who shipped in Jan 2014: One 40ft container, 2 cars, final price per car: +-$1,050.00 USD (including all fees in both ports, we did not pay any agents). We shipped with Seaboardmarine, our contact was Tea Kalmbach (firstname.lastname@example.org) who was very helpful. You need her to book the reservation and write the Bill of Landing. On the Colombian side the situation was much easier than on the Panama side. Step-by-step instructions to do it without an agent
- Heather and Scott's Adventures: Shipping Our Vehicle Across The Darién Gap Report from 2013 of shipping RORO, with agent contact, total price, process, etc. etc. Very detailed report, very cheap for RORO, a great option for people with bigger vehicles.
- Shipping Costs From Cartagena, Colombia to Colon, Panama - Kiwi-Panamericana Shipping details and price from September 2013 $1,175.50 USD per vehicle sharing a 40 ft. container.
- Part 1 Panama, Colon, Trucks in a Box and Part 2: Cartagena, Mud Volcanoes, Baru Peninsula Shipping report from mid 2013
- Shipping across the Darien gap Panama-Colombia Part 1 and Part 2. Sharing a 40' container.
- Shipping From Panama to Cartagena Part 1: Panama and Part 2: Cartagena. Very detailed writeup for the Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO) process, from April 2012
- Shipping tips
- Shipping across The Darien Gap Pt. 1 | The road chose me (From 2010)
- Vehicle shipping across the Darien Gap | Drive the Americas (Constantly updated)
Finishing the trip
At the end of the trip, some people choose to sell their vehicle and fly home, while others choose to ship their vehicle home.
Selling cars registered outside South American countries is tricky at best, and often illegal. See the details in the Chile and Argentina pages for more details. Some USA states allow vehicle titles to be transferred via post.
Ship vehicle home
- In early 2014 Lost World Expedition shared a 40 ft. shipping container from Buenos Aires to Miami, Florida for a total price (inc. all fees on both ends) of $2,000.00 USD per vehicle.
Overlanding Mexico and Central America Contains advice for planning and preparing for an overlanding trip based on the hundreds of hours of research LifeRemotely did before leaving home in October 2011.
Information for Americana Tour Site with information and links about driving the Pan American Highway (available in English and German)
Ruined Adventures: Fellow Travelers A list of Overlanders traveling the Pan American highway as of 2012. Also lists recently completed expeditions.
Seventeen By Six - travelling from Mexico to Argentina. Oct 2011 - present. Includes camping maps.